Photograph by Steven Higgs

Billions of gallons of untreated waste and stormwater pour into Indiana's rivers and streams from antiquated combined sewer systems every year. Indiana has 105 communities where, by design, raw sewage is diverted into waterways during rainfalls as low a 0.10 inch.

As we delve into combined sewer overflows or CSOs, (having everything to do again with poop, only now, from we humans) many of you are probably thinking, "Here we go again." I know I did.

But I've learned through the "Indiana Environment Revisited" project that one of the major environmental threats we're up against is the export of human and animal waste. And while other looming threats like the pending coal plant in Edwardsport or the construction of I-69 have nothing to do with what comes from our bodies, one major connection tying these and many environmental movements together is water.

The mercury from coal plants, the destruction of Indiana's wetlands by I-69 and the contaminants from CAFOs and CSOs all threaten our water, the most important natural resource on Earth.

As this is our only "Indiana Environment Revisited" piece this issue, it looks like it's up to me, for the moment, to explain the threat of CSOs and why anyone should care, as I am learning them from the Improving Kids' Environments (IKE) Website.

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Read more 'Indiana Environment Revisited'

Allow me to begin by reiterating that my knowledge of CSOs is almost virgin, give or take what I know of the well-known Indianapolis legacy that the White River, in many areas, is considered an isle of pee. Beyond that, for those of you taking a journey into CSOs for the first time, I'm right there with you.


A combined sewer overflow, the release of untreated sewage and stormwater into rivers and streams, can happen in even the lightest of rains, according to IKE. CSOs affect people living in Indiana's 105 CSO communities and dump approximately 20 billion gallons of sewage into Indiana streams per year.

And the danger is urgent for the most dauntless of us all, children, who have no concept the water they're in has a bacteria count of 100 times Indiana's legislatively mandated health standards, according to the IKE website.

Like CAFOs, there are measures we can take to protect our communities from CSOs.

One would be a state rule requiring public notification when a sanitary sewer overflows. According to the IKE website, IDEM agreed in 2003 to have discussions about that implementation, but none of those discussions have been held.

Preventing the bacteria from entering the water is a challenge, one that would cost the state $4 billion, according to IKE. So, a cheaper approach, at least for now, would be to let people know when an overflow has occurred, right?

Look at CAFOs, for example. Not only is there little to no pressure from county, city or state governments to prevent hydrogen sulfide omissions or antibiotic spills, but even the potential for requiring setbacks from hospitals, schools and homes looks grim.

With CSOs and CAFOs both, I'm not sure why government, on any level, is troubled by preventative action.


I think it's important for us to understand why combined sewer overflows happen. In part, it's population growth. In particular, according to IKE, it's the extent to which developers are allowed to tap new businesses and homes into already existing sewer systems. Many of us in Indiana have been less than thrilled about shelling out the cash to fix our sewers systems or even build new ones. Considering the lack of funds, then, it's no wonder the problem has been long ignored.

According to IKE, overflows also occur by design. Indiana's original combined sewers, built as early as the mid-1900s, were designed to withstand at least as much as 0.75 inches of rain before potentially overflowing. They haven't been upgraded, and now, many of those systems overflow with as little as 0.1 inches of rain.

The more populated our Indiana communities become, the more polluting our combined sewer systems will be until we take action.

So, as it appears we're splashing around in our own toilet water for now, keep in mind the longer we are unwilling to update our sewer systems, the less capacity those systems have to resist overflow.

One such system pours into Little Lick Creek in Blackford County, near Hartford City. I'll be able to share first hand my experience at Little Lick Creek as Steve and I will visit its shores in the next few weeks. The last time Steve visited Little Lick Creek with IDEM scientists in 2000, the waters tested at 25,000 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters, a bacteria indicating untreated waste in water. The state limit for E. coli is 235 colonies per 100 milliliters.

As many children in Hartford City still wade Little Lick's banks, it will be interesting to hear their families' reactions as we reveal the levels of bacteria in their child's favorite playground.

Amber Kerezman can be reached at .